May 10, 2006 - For years, Oro Valley leaders have concentrated their efforts on getting as many cash registers inside the town as possible. With the way commercial developers and businesses have been courted by the town's administrators, it would seem a sure bet that any contributor to the town's prized retail sector would be treated like royalty by town officials.
Yet for many owners of small and independent businesses trying to open in Oro Valley, the task of pushing their paperwork through the town's bureaucracy has left them feeling frustrated, neglected and simply disgusted.
"When you're first trying to get off the ground, it's an uphill battle. The town is making it hard for a small, independent business to open up," said Chris Belanger, owner of the French Twist, a French-themed cafe at 10110 N. Oracle Road.
The French Twist is the first business Belanger has owned. He said he came up with the idea for a café focused on breakfast and lunch because he would regularly wake up on Sunday morning and not know where to eat. After it occurred to him he might have identified an underserved consumer market, the six-year Oro Valley resident decided he'd give his café a French flair to distinguish it from similar restaurants.
After his building was erected six months late, Belanger thought he would still be able to open last November in time to catch snowbird season. Little did he know he would be unable to open until mid-April.
Any business opening in Oro Valley must first submit its building plans to the town for review. If approved, a new business then faces a battery of inspectors from the town's departments of building safety, planning and zoning, and, in the case of new buildings, public works. Any new business is also inspected by a fire marshal from Golder Ranch Fire District.
The grand opening of the French Twist was delayed when two of the inspectors couldn't agree on how Belanger should fix his ventilation system.
"The inspector told us that the hood over our stoves had to run through ventilation ducts in the ceiling. After we had that done, the fire marshal came in and told us we had done it all wrong," Belanger said. "We had to resubmit our plans to Oro Valley, and we were told it would take a week. It took three weeks. I kept calling them over and over, because it was the only thing keeping me from opening and training staff. Some people we hired even found other jobs while we were waiting to open."
Oro Valley chief building inspector Chuck King said that while the two inspectors both look at the hood, they are inspecting it for different reasons. The fire marshal inspects the hood's fire suppression system that puts out grease fires, while the building safety inspector checks to see if the hood is the right size and shape and operates properly, he said.
Vice Mayor Terry Parish said the town's inspection process has a history of inconsistency.
"I heard complaints about this even before I got elected. If a business passes one inspection, it should pass the next inspection, as well," Parish said.
The Oro Valley inspectors also told Belanger the tiles on the sidewalk in front of his café weren't the same tiles he identified in his plans. As he later found out, the building's contractor substituted another set of tiles when the planned tiles were out of stock. Although Belanger couldn't tell the difference between the two sets, he was told he would fail any inspection until the tiles were ripped up and replaced.
"Being an Oro Valley resident, I can understand them wanting to be particular. They told me up front they like to dot the i's and cross the t's. At the same time, it kind of makes you wonder, is this really necessary?" Belanger said.
Belanger said the unexpected delays and missing the peak season for restaurants have troubled his startup café's financial stability.
"All during the delay, we had to take out money for financing. Now we're further behind than we thought we would be. If we make it to September, we'll be fine, but July and August will be tough to get through," Belanger said. "Oro Valley wants to be business friendly, but there are a lot of competing ideas. The people that live here say they don't want big box companies, but the corporate chains are the ones with the big pockets to get them through the red tape."
Town Manager Chuck Sweet said Oro Valley is trying to do more to guide small businesses through the permitting process.
"We've been looking for ways to help small business owners open their businesses on time, because that's in everyone's best interest," Sweet said. "The process may appear burdensome, but when we issue a permit for a business to open to the public, we need to make sure the public will be safe."
Nevertheless, King said many small business owners are caught off-guard by the comprehensiveness of the permitting process.
"Small businesses occasionally try to get something built by themselves, and they don't have a good understanding of the commercial building process. All of a sudden, everything is a surprise to them," King said.
For Peter Gallen, owner of Sundaze Yogurt and Ice Cream, 10355 N. La Canada Drive, the memory of what he went through to open his ice cream parlor still evokes anger two years later.
"From the beginning, the amount of time it has taken the town to approve plans has been horrendous. Once you drop off your plans, they tell you they'll call you, and you won't hear from them for two weeks," Gallen said. "In Tucson, it gets done right away. (Oro Valley) can't be that overwhelmed."
Gallen said he had to resubmit his plans for approval three times, and each time he was given new items that had to be fixed by an architect. Even though he could get the changes to the plans fixed within a day, he said he had to wait two week every time he turned the plans over to Oro Valley.
"Everyday you're not open costs you money. Many great businesses won't come to Oro Valley because they don't think it's worth the trouble. With all the tax revenue they've walked away from, if I lived in Oro Valley, I'd be angry," Gallen said.
Sweet said some of the delays in plan review are exasperated by the poor quality of the work some local architects put into plans for small businesses.
"We've experienced some challenges with the quality of the work handed in by architects and plans not being as complete as they should be. That will create a situation where more time is spent on additional reviews," Sweet said.
Gallen called the town's inspection process "a joke."
"One time the inspector came in to look around and he signed off on the plumbing. While he was there, I asked him to take a look at our light fixtures because they also needed approval. He said, 'No, we can't do that - you have to make an appointment.' So I made an appointment and two days later, the same inspector came in and signed off on the light fixtures," Gallen said.
King said an inspector's day is tightly scheduled and does not provide time for unplanned inspections.
"It could take 30 to 40 minutes for a electrical system inspection. That amount of time could push the last person on the list to the next day through no fault of their own just because someone else didn't do their job and request that inspection," King said.
Gallen, who has another Sundaze location in Catalina Foothills, had planned to open in Oro Valley in November of 2003. Because of the plan review and inspection process, he couldn't open his ice cream parlor for business until April 2004.
"Even once you're here, they make it difficult to stay in business. I put a list of our flavors in the window, and I was told signs in the windows aren't allowed," Gallen said. "If I'm approved to be an ice cream shop, let me be an ice cream shop."
Sherri Cassellius, owner of Sasso's Pizza and Deli, 12152 N. Rancho Vistoso Boulevard, has also been frustrated by the town's ordinance against signs in business windows. Not only is she prevented from advertising from her store windows, she can't even solicit employees with a help wanted sign.
"I used to be able to advertise specials. Things that wouldn't ordinarily matter do matter in Oro Valley," said Cassellius. "No one knows we are hiring unless we can put a sign in the window, because newspaper ads don't work. Right now I'm in violation because of my help wanted sign, but it's the only way to get kids to come work here."
Sweet said that while some businesses complain about the town's sign ordinance, no one has petitioned the town council to change it.
"I've heard those complaints, but there hasn't been a concerted effort to change that even though we're probably very restrictive in that area," Sweet said.
Cassellius opened Sasso's in 2002 and is now having trouble getting a permit from the town to install an air conditioner in her restaurant.
"Here it is now May and we might not have it in for summer, and we've been trying for a month. It shouldn't take that long just to put in an air conditioner." Cassellius said. "These delays always end up costing a business money."
For other business owners, dealing with Oro Valley government has been a pleasant experience even when they have failed the town's inspections.
"We flunked the sign code because they said our sign was too pink," said Mardi Burden, owner of the kitchen supply store Cuisine Classique, 12142 N. Rancho Vistoso Boulevard. Burden opened the store with her husband in September 2004 after operating as a mail order company from home for many years.
"We got a letter saying that we were going to get a fine, but our sign guy wouldn't fix it for us. When we told the town, they just said, 'Okay, just keep us informed.' I was totally impressed that they weren't going to fine us," she said.
Although Burden had heard horror stories about opening a business in Oro Valley, the entire inspection and plan approval process only took about four days.
"The town clerk offered to walk our paperwork through to all the different departments to get it approved. They called us that afternoon, and we were clear to open," Burden said. "We were thinking, why does everyone bitch about Oro Valley?"
Brent Sinclair, Oro Valley community development director, said many of the delays in plan reviewing stems from an inadequate staffing in his department and vacancies in several key positions. Although his department recently hired a new building safety administrator, the positions of senior planner and senior plans examiner remain vacant.
"Right now we're hurting, it's pretty much down to a skeleton crew," Sinclair said.
He said most plan reviewing is subcontracted to plans examiners in the private sector, but additional time is lost in the shuffle.
"For smaller projects, the work is done within a couple weeks. For larger commercial projects, the turnaround time is closer to 30 days," Sinclair said. "A real estate office could take just a few days to be approved, while a restaurant could take weeks or months."
He added: "Most complaints we get are about this back and forth business. There's some lost time and also the loss of a personal touch, which is important in dealing with small businesses."
However, Sinclair said the town doesn't take the complaints it receives lightly. In April, the town hired Gary Goelitz of the Matrix Consulting Group to track permits as they are reviewed and look for ways to expedite the process.
"We're curious ourselves to see if we can improve the permit process. We want to be able to get them through as quickly as possible," Sinclair said.
Assistant Town Manager David Andrews said that, in addition to the consultant, Oro Valley would also be assembling a peer review panel of local business leaders and developers to provide feedback on the plan approval and business permitting process.
"We've tried to assemble some of the most vocal members of our business community. We're trying to get a good cross-section," Andrews said. "Over the years we've heard some criticisms, and we want to be responsive to our community. We've felt it's time to do some outreach."
Andrews said the peer review panel will include representatives from the Northern Pima County Chamber of Commerce, Southern Arizona Homebuilders, various architectural firms, and Ventana Medical Systems, among others.
Parish said that the increased sensitivity the town is feeling toward creating a business-friendly environment is a result of the town giving a higher priority to economic development and expanding its retail sector.
"As economic development becomes more important to the town, it has become more important to bring new businesses into Oro Valley. We've started to take this issue more seriously, because it has made some businesses fearful of coming here, and sometimes rightly so," Parish said. "Government is not supposed to make your life harder, it's supposed to make your life better."
Yet when it comes to Oro Valley's nitpickiness, Sinclair says the town government is holding businesses to a standard set by the public.
"Oro Valley has higher standards than the communities around us. At the staff level, we don't make codes, we just carry them out," Sinclair said. "We have high expectations from the public."